In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that Ohio did not violate federal law by purging voters from the state’s rolls if voters did not vote for two years and failed to respond to a confirmation notice sent by the state.
The case stemmed from a lawsuit brought by software engineer Larry Harmon. In 2015, Harmon went to vote on a state ballot measure only to find that he had been removed from the voter rolls. After sitting out a few elections, Ohio sent Harmon a confirmation notice that, because Harmon did not respond, triggered the multi-year process of removing him from its rolls.
The New York Times reports that federal laws (the 1993 National Voter Registration Act and the Help America Vote Act) prohibit states from removing voters simply “by reason of the person’s failure to vote.” The laws, however, allow states to send a notice if election officials suspect the voter has changed addresses. At issue was whether or not the failure to vote was a legal “trigger” to send a notice.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion. Alito wrote that states cannot remove voters simply for not voting but that was not the case with Ohio which, he wrote, “removes registrants only if they have failed to vote and have failed to respond to a notice.” Alito continued: “A state violates the failure-to-vote clause only if it removes registrants for no reason other than their failure to vote.” Ohio, he wrote, followed the law “to the letter” by waiting six years to remove a voter from its rolls.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the lengthy dissent. Ohio’s process, Breyer wrote, “erects needless hurdles to voting of the kind Congress sought to eliminate” and were designed with the intention to “keep certain groups of citizens from voting.”
And the law has so far had a disproportionate impact on low-income voters of color. More from the Times:
A Reuters study in 2016 found that at least 144,000 people were removed from the voting rolls in recent years in Ohio’s three largest counties, which are home to Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus.
“Voters have been struck from the rolls in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods at roughly twice the rate as in Republican neighborhoods,” the study found. “Neighborhoods that have a high proportion of poor, African-American residents are hit the hardest.” [...]
The Justice Department for decades took the position that failing to vote should not lead to disenfranchisement. In the appeals court, the Obama administration filed a brief supporting Mr. Harmon.
After the last presidential election, the department switched sides in the case, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, No. 16-980.
In an interview with Splinter last year, Leah Aden, senior counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, called Ohio’s law a modern example of the same suppressive tactics used in the height of Jim Crow. “We have a history in our country of having dual registration systems, where historically, black and white voters had different processes for registering,” she said at the time. “We have a long history of voter purgers. And this is, unfortunately, part of that history.”